Over the last few decades, I’ve found myself thinking that we somehow had regressed as a nation to the turn of the last century and the era of the Robber Barons. With the recent election, it feels more like the 1850s and the nasty politics of the era leading up to the Civil War. I don’t mean that we are on the verge of another violent collision on that scale. I mean that the level of fury and dishonesty has reached levels I thought of as a historical relic, long left behind.
Such periods are a major challenge for democracy, which assumes that public decisions will be argued out on a reasoned basis. In this election, only one side was playing by those rules. The Founders were aware of this possibility. That’s why they built a specifically constitutional democracy. Even the Electoral College, which is making such a mess of the vote this time around was originally a protection to keep populous states from beating up on small ones. One could argue that it has outlived its purpose, since it is making it possible now for states with small populations to gang up on states with larger ones. But be that as it may, we are a constitutional democracy, and there is no politically realistic chance of getting rid of the College in my lifetime.
It’s not just the US where democracy is in trouble. Think Brexit. Think Poland, Turkey, and Hungary. We thought we were above all that. But there is no simple upward trend of enlightenment and decency in history. One could perhaps argue that there has been improvement over the last three centuries, but not without hiccups, surprises, and wild mood swings.
I would like to think that this election is a mere blip that we will soon get past. But there is no guarantee of that. What we can say is, “We’ve been here before, even if not in my lifetime.” This is not the time for despondency, but for renewed and thoughtful determination. And time to ask why so much of our electorate (though not the majority) has given way to sheer recklessness in its choice of Donald Trump. I’m not thinking primarily of the bigots who were attracted to Trump’s open racism and misogyny and xenophobia—as they have been to decades of less explicit exploitation of these attitudes on the part of the Republican Party. I am thinking rather of ordinary people who had given up hope in the political business-as-usual. Some of them voted for Obama the last time around—and for some of the same reasons.
Much of this desperation has to do with specifically local situations. Democrats, I’m afraid, have been too willing to focus narrowly on national issues and politics. In the meantime, Republicans have worked hard to take control of a majority of the states. If Democrats want to change the future of the national government, we will have to get more serious about state governments. Remember that even the least populous state gets a minimum of three electoral votes. Those who live in California or New York cannot afford to be indifferent to the economic well-being or the political health of, say, North and South Dakota. Too often, we have ignored their economic troubles and looked down on what we esteemed their benighted politics.
When I hear friends talking—how seriously is hard to say—about renewing their passports and looking for refuge in some other country, I think, “What other country?” Yes, Canada is a saner place right now than the US, though it may not be eager to add a flood of Yankee refugees. But no human polity is guaranteed immunity to the kinds of disruption we are currently experiencing. Think again of the Brexit. Indeed, I believe that all human beings are equally subject to the doctrine of total depravity—that nasty reality in our hearts that knows how to turn good into evil and which resides as determinedly in the souls of bishops and archbishops, Evangelical leaders and politicians as in those of ordinary folk.
In the US, we have made at least some progress against racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of divisive suspicions and hostilities. The present resurgence of these things is a sign of how far they have been brought out into the open and how desperate they are to reclaim their lost influence. This it not the time to give up in disgust and look for some perfect safe place—non-existent in any case. It is time to broaden our vision so that we can see why so many people in the middle of the country, geographically and economically, have lost hope in the political world as we have it. And it is time to recommit to a vision of democracy as embracing all the people. That perfect democracy doesn’t yet exist anywhere. Indeed, I do not believe it will, this side of the Age to Come—which is why we have to keep working to salvage it, restore it, maintain it, extend it.